Much debate surrounds the topic of religion’s role in American government, specifically Christianity’s role. Everyone from scholars to clergymen to elected officials and candidates seem to disagree on where, exactly, the First Amendment’s limitations on religion end. Most recently notable on this front was Christine O’Donnell, a candidate for U.S. Senate in Delaware. O’Donnell was criticized, and may have even lost her bid for Senator, over her perplexing comments regarding what the First Amendment’s establishment clause says (or doesn’t say) about separation of church and state. So what does the First Amendment say about religion and politics?
The First Amendment says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” The portion that directly applies to religion’s role is that first clause, dubbed the “establishment clause.” But what is meant by the words, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” and how can we know what the framers intended with that phrase?
The Founders were Christian men, mostly of the Protestant Church. There may have been a few who weren’t but that’s not only difficult to prove, it’s irrelevant. The Founding Fathers prayed before meetings, they often spoke of Christ and God in their speeches and God is mentioned throughout the Declaration of Independence. It was written into Federal law that Congress is to begin with a prayer and this is practiced even still today. To try suggesting the nation was not founded by men of the Christian faith is absurd and just as absurd is the desire many liberals have to prohibit expression of religion in the public sphere. The Christian faith played, and still plays, a major role in American life. It would never have been the intent of these men to forbid public or governmental expressions or faith and religion. So how literal do we take the words, “Congress shall make no law establishing religion?”
Many look to the personal letters written by some of the Founders, others look to speeches such as George Washington’s Farewell Address to determine the intentions of the establishment clause. However, the Constitution was written to establish all men’s rights as citizens of the United States. Any personal letters or speeches delivered convey only the feelings of the author or speaker, not their position on laws and what other men must be forced to do. Because a Founder may have believed Christianity offers the best morals and values by which one should live does not mean he also thought Christian principles should be manifested into law. In fact, on June 7, 1797, John Adams introduced the Treaty of Tripoli to the Senate. The people of Tripoli were Musselmans and to assure that no religiously based complications would arise, Article 11 of the treaty contained a clear statement on the religious position of our nation: “As the government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion…no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.” This treaty was unanimously approved b the Senate and signed into law by John Adams. This is a crystal clear illustration of the political mindset of our Founders and though they were inarguably Christian men, they had no intention to be “a Christian nation.”
The First Amendment states that the nation will have no established religion but will protect the expression of religion. It does not say that religious imagery must be removed from government buildings. It does not state that public schools must ban prayer – a notion that seems all the more ridiculous when contrasted with Congress’s opening prayer ceremony. The First Amendment does not free us from the religious expression of others but on quite the contrary, it protects others’ right to publicly express that religion. The First Amendment also offers no limits on individual liberties based on the religion of those writing law. What the First Amendment does provide is the security in knowing that any person, from any creed, can enjoy all the freedoms our Constitution protects and Declaration of Independence speaks of. Rather than use the Constitution to prohibit rights, we should be championing the freedom it protects.